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Slow down as you approach the gate, and have your change ready....
Artist: Chris Tomlin
Label: Sixsteprecords (2008)
Length: 12 tracks / 59:24 minutes
Even the most conservative of music critics would have to admit that Chris Tomlin’s musical dossier is, at the very least, noteworthy. Since 2006, he has pulled down no less than thirteen GMA Dove Awards, including three consecutive trophies for Worship Song of the Year and back-to-back statuettes in the coveted Male Vocalist of the Year category in 2007 and 2008. His last two studio albums, 2004’s Arriving and 2006’s See the Morning, have both been certified gold by the RIAA and are responsible for combined sales of nearly two million units. He has had at least one chart-topping single each year since 2004 and is one of the only performers during the last two decades to place two songs in the Top 10 at the same time.
Those high water marks notwithstanding, the crowning moment for the native Texan, whose recorded output has been used for everything from the closing session at the local youth group retreat to the wake-up music on the Space Shuttle Atlantis, arguably came on August 8th of this year when six of his songs appeared in none other than the 2008 edition of the Baptist Hymnal. While Tomlin’s ultimate achievement, ironically enough, may very well be lost on a sizeable percentage of those who sing his material on Sundays, it nevertheless places him in an elite company of artists whose work has been deemed worthy to stand alongside such beloved classics as “Holy, Holy, Holy” and “Nothing but the Blood.”
Given such success with his back catalog, it is perhaps not surprising that the better part of Hello Love cleaves fairly closely to the template laid out by its forebears. “My Deliverer” and “God Almighty” are woven from the same semi-anthemic pop/worship/soft rock cloth that propelled “How Great Is Our God” and “Enough” to their rightful place as modern-day praise standards. In the same way, Tomlin’s retrofitting of the venerable hymn, “All the Way My Savior Leads Me,” for use within the contemporary worship domain mirrors his inventive retooling of “Amazing Grace” to that same end on his last release. And “I Will Rise,” like “The Wonderful Cross” and “Amazing Grace (My Chains Are Gone)” before it, appears custom built for heavy rotation in many a church’s special music and offertory solo slots.
Similar though it may be to Tomlin’s previous work, the problem with the lion’s share of Love is that, while it manages to replicate the most obvious sonic aspects of its predecessors, it lacks the undergirding passion and enthusiasm that rendered the earlier efforts so inspiring. Nowhere is this more obvious than on “Sing, Sing, Sing,” and “Jesus Messiah,” both of which offer the latest outing a decidedly less than spirited one-two opening punch. The likewise listless “Exalted,” sounds as much like a lullaby as it does a praise chorus. And even more up-tempo numbers, like “With Me” and “You Lifted Me Out,” are laden with a perceptible sense of restraint that ends up stifling any momentum they might otherwise have generated.
To his credit, Tomlin does shake off the proverbial slumber at more than one point during the proceedings. The inclusion of the Watoto Children's Choir from Uganda on the world music-inclined “Love” injects the new record with a welcome dose of vitality. Tomlin’s magnificently minimalistic acoustic-guitar driven rendition of “All the Way My Savior Leads Me” is equally shimmering. And the beautifully melodic “Praise the Father, Praise the Son” should bring all but the stodgiest of churchgoers instantly to their feet. Unfortunately, though, these stronger tracks are interspersed among a surplus of less impressive entries, the net effect of which ultimately serves to temper the impact of the album as a whole.
Objectively speaking, nothing here could be considered out and out bad. And few could fault Tomlin for sticking within the friendly confines of that which has brought him such a high level of success and, more importantly, played so vital a role in congregation-based worship. Indeed, it seems a pretty safe bet that at least a handful of the songs on Hello will be Sunday morning mainstays before the follow-on project ever sees the light of day. But even as the contingent that uses Tomlin’s compositions in the church setting seems bound to embrace Love almost by default, those looking for evidence of artistic growth or a digression into more experimental musical territory will have to wait until at least the next release to find them.
Bert Gangl, The Phantom Tollbooth (09.17.08)